Jake Arrieta is on a completely different wavelength right now, locked into a dream season where it feels like there is no end in sight when he pitches like this.
The crowd of 36,270 waited to give Arrieta the standing ovation on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, watching him put the finishing touches on a 4-0 complete-game victory over the Milwaukee Brewers and notch his 20th win.
And with that, the Cubs sliced their magic number down to three, positioning themselves as a team you do not want to face in the playoffs with Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation.
The National League has taken notice, with Arrieta lowering his ERA to 1.88 and putting together 18 straight quality starts, an unbelievable run that included his no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It just means that I’m putting my team in positions to win ballgames,” said Arrieta, who became the first Cub to reach 20 wins since Jon Lieber in 2001. “At the end of the day, that’s our goal – to try and pile on as many as we can.
“Especially with where we’re at in the season, wins now at this time are more important than ever. Just happy about getting one for the team and keeping the momentum going.”
Arrieta smothered the last-place Brewers, allowing only three hits (two infield singles) and one walk and finishing with 11 strikeouts. His 0.86 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break is the lowest mark in major-league history.
“It’s Bob Gibson-esque,” manager Joe Maddon said.
Maddon allowed Arrieta to throw 123 pitches and admitted he would have pulled his ace if the Cubs scored another insurance run.
Arrieta struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning – Logan Schafer and Adam Lind – and hit 94 mph with his second-to-last pitch. Khris Davis grounded out to end a game that only took two hours and 22 minutes, setting off the celebrations in Wrigleyville.
“It’s a really tough decision to make in that moment,” Maddon said. “Honestly, if all this other stuff was not attached to it, I probably would have taken him out. With everything else attached to it, I thought it was appropriate to send him back out.
“You have to be in the dugout to really feel all of that. Believe me, I didn’t do it lightly or easily. I thought about it a lot.” Arrieta has now thrown 216 innings – or almost 60 more than he did last year in the big leagues. The Cubs are counting on him to shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Oct. 7 wild-card game and lead this team on a long postseason run.
“It’s uncharted territory,” Maddon said. “It’s all this stuff that’s very prominent in the news right now regarding pitchers and innings pitched. The thing I’ve talked about with him (is) the fact that he’s not in his early 20s. The fact that he’s been pitching for awhile, I think, separates him.
“Combine that with his workout regimen, what kind of shape he’s in, it was kind of like honestly a non-stressful 120 pitches, if that makes sense. He wasn’t really in a lot of binds during the course of the game.”
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The Cubs have won almost 75 percent of the games started by Arrieta this season (23-8). He has been a stabilizing influence on a young team with rookies up and down the lineup and too many question marks in the rotation. That sense of confidence might make him arguably the team’s MVP.
The Cy Young race could come down to Arrieta or Dodgers ace Zack Greinke (18-3, 1.65 ERA), which seemed unthinkable when the Cubs made that Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season.
Within the American League East, Arrieta had a reputation as someone who would unravel, letting the game get too fast and giving up the big inning.
With a straight face, Arrieta said he didn’t feel all that sharp during his fourth complete game this season, but he’s willed himself into becoming a No. 1 starter.
“I felt off, but you have a handful of starts where it’s a toss-up,” Arrieta said. “You’re not sure which way it’s going to go, but your mindset plays a big deal in what the outcome looks like. So try to be mentally tough and grind it out.”
The Cubs allowed Arrieta to be himself and didn’t try the cookie-cutter approach that didn’t seem to work in Baltimore (20-25, 5.46 ERA). Coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode didn’t try to completely rewire Arrieta’s mechanics or stop his crossfire motion.
The Cubs also discovered a curious student who would embrace the analytics, apply scouting reports and think on his feet. That immersion into the mental side of the game means Arrieta might only be getting started with 20 wins.
“I know the results have been good, but I don’t dwell on it for too long,” Arrieta said, “because tomorrow I’m getting ready for Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, the body of work has been good. It’s been what my team has needed.
“I’m just fortunate to be in situations where the team’s scoring runs, I’m pitching well and the wins add up. It’s just kind of one of those things that doesn’t happen often. But you try and appreciate it when they do.”